Monday, September 18, 2006

Autonomy, the NRA, and Shooting Thy Neighbor

Dear Mr. Supposed Philosopher:
{Audio this essay @ 3.6MB .mp3}

Having sat-in on your ultra right-wing, red-state lecture on capital punishment a couple years ago where you claimed to vote republican (once), I have a question for you, you raging conservative. What is your opinion on issues regarding gun control, second amendment rights and the right to bear arms?

I've been having a discussion with a couple of guys at church about these issues and would be interested in hearing your take on them I figure you may be torn because although you are a red-neck, ex-military boy from Ken-tuk-eeeee, you have spent ample time in the liberal academy, which should possibly offset these tendencies. Please, do tell; and remember, Bubba shot the jukebox last night!


--Armed in Missouri

Dear Missouri Freeloader:

Admittedly, I have often contemplated joining the NRA, since I affirm that gun ownership is both a constitutional right and a prudential decision. I should also point out that the NRA, though now known for its (overly) zealous position on the constitutional rights of gun ownership, was originally formed by a couple of Civil-war generals who were concerned about the despicable marksmanship of the young men entering into military service.[1]

Originally, gun ownership was based upon the abilities of local militia to keep government at bay and to have a standing citizenry as an armed force at the impetus of our country's independence. Obviously, the former is no longer possible, and the latter is no longer practical.

However, my interest is not in keeping the government at bay, but in keeping my fellow citizens at bay. Thus, I can protect my property and my natural family interests by having sufficient firepower to keep random thugs, or even thug bands at bay. When there exists both sufficient state registration laws and the pervasive presence of weapons among the populous, it makes breaking and entering a much more dangerous endeavor; this will lower the probabilities of otherwise unscrupulous thugs attempting burglary on a casual basis.

Morgan O. Reynolds, in a study titled, "Crime By Choice: An Economic Analysis"[2] gives what I take to be convincing evidence for my personal anti-thug-infestation position:

* New Jersey adopted what sponsors described as "the most stringent gun law" in the nation in 1966; two years later, the murder rate was up 46 percent and the reported robbery rate had nearly doubled.
* In 1968, Hawaii imposed a series of increasingly harsh measures and its murder rate, then a low 2.4 per 100,000 per year, tripled to 7.2 by 1977.
* In 1976, Washington, D.C., enacted one of the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation. Since then, the city's murder rate has risen 134 percent while the national murder rate has dropped 2 percent.

What this (and other studies) tell me is that if gun control laws have any effect, then such control laws seem to increase rather than decrease crime.

Admittedly, The current per-capita risk of thug infestation is certainly very low, but times can change quickly and short term disasters could come suddenly (e.g. Hurricane Katrina or the LA riots). In those cases, I might want to have adequate defenses to guard what has been justly acquired by law, but which is under unjust threat from my fellow citizens. For example, and as we've seen in recent natural disasters, local and state authorities can lose control for short durations of time, so gun ownership is a fall-back position for when governments fail in their ability to maintain order. The weaker members of our society also gain the ability to assert their natural right of self defense, as one of the more interesting second amendment advocate organizations makes very, very clear.

And, please, keep in mind I'm Libertarian, not Republican. God bless America (and any other democracy which respects the liberty, autonomy, and self-determination of its citizens).



[1] "A Brief History of the NRA" Official NRA of America Homepage (Accessed 18 Sept 2006)

[2] Morgan O. Reynolds, Crime By Choice: An Economic Analysis (Dallas: Fisher Institute, 1985), pp. 165-68.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Stem Cell Research: The Taking of Human Life?

{Audio this essay @ 2.2MB .mp3} Today the Washington Post is reporting that “scientists for the first time have turned ordinary skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells -- without having to use human eggs or make new human embryos in the process.”[1]

This is an important advance in stem cell technology, since many people feel that any use of embryonic stem cells destroys a human life, and since this new process would not require such destruction.

Typically one coaxes an ordinary stem cell into an embryo, and then uses the embryo as a little factory to grow more cells inside. When one finally harvests the newly manufactured stem cells, the embryo is destroyed. That’s supposed to be when a human life is destroyed.

I personally do not share the intuition that a human life is destroyed when an embryo is destroyed. At best a potential human life is destroyed, not an actual human life. This distinction is one that Enlightenment Philosopher Immanuel Kant has drawn. Still, I’m not even taken by that distinction as the best ethical stance on the matter, though I think it is probably the best pragmatic criterion for making legal distinctions. (The law can only do so much in society; personal ethics and relationships must do the rest.)

I typically count something as a human life only if there is operant brain wave activity. The primitive streak,[2] which is the forerunner structure that eventually forms into the brain and spinal cord develops around the fifth week, and brain wave signals are typically active for auditory and visual systems at week twenty-six. Naturally, therefore, I’m pretty stiff on any justification for abortion after that time; for, by my own criterion, a human life is then lost. So the idea of destroying a bunch of pre-programmed cells – cells that never even get close to building even the rudimentary structures for a fetal brain – just does not bother me.

Other people seem really bothered by the above brain-wave argument, most visibly the Roman Catholic church: “The late Pope John Paul II stated that an embryo should be treated as a human from the point of fertilization, which precludes the use of embryos for research, regardless of the source.”[3] Right-wing Evangelicals seem bothered by it too, but on my view the Roman Catholic church always has the most nuanced and rational arguments on these Bioethical matters when compared with any Evangelical group, since the latter group regularly has a simplistic view of how to read ancient literature to contemporary advantage. (Here is a typical weak case of Evangelical argumentation [4]. )


[1] “Skin Cells Converted to Stem Cells” Washington Post (Accessed 17 Sept. 2006)

[2] Image: Primitive Streak “Monitoring Stem Cell Research. Appendix A: Notes on Early Human Development” The President’s Council on Bioethics (Accessed 17 Sept. 2006)

[3] “A Healthcare Revolution: Arguments for Embryonic Stem Cell Research” Ivy Journal of Ethics (Accessed 17 Sept. 2006)

[4]What about stem cell research on embryonic tissue?” (Accessed 17 Sept. 2006)


Monday, September 11, 2006

Garbage, Landfills, and Utopia

{Audio this essay @ 2.5mb .mp3} I recently read that each American generates about 4.5 pounds per day, per person of trash. (This is an EPA statistic.) In 2003, Americans generated 236 million tons of garbage. No doubt it's even more now, if toy security measures are any indication. Landfills received 130 million tons of it, which if piled onto a football field, would extend 703 miles into the sky [1]. I find this an odd image when I try to imagine it.

Admittedly, garbage is tricky problem, since things only degrade so fast, and we have only limited space on the planet. An 80/20 curve is often found in nature, and the nature of our garbage is no exception: Around 80 percent of our nation's garbage goes to landfills, but these are rapidly running out of room [2]. At550 tons per day, with a land area of 150 acres, where operations are active on a 100 acres, the lifespan of a landfill is about 20 years, with a post-closure period of 30 years [3].

Some garbage can be recycled, of course, but it takes energy to convert trash from one form to another. Also it takes energy just to move and process trash. This is why shooting it all into the sun isn't going to happen anytime soon. it would be nice if the conversion or processing components could be mangaged to advantage.

Lucie County, Florida thinks it can convert all of its trash by vaporizing it and using the energy produced to power the turbines of an orange juice production plant. From now on, I'll be thinking new thoughts when gulping a Tropicana product.

Geoplasma, the Atlanta-based company that will construct the plant for the county, is giving the typically rosy predictions: "No byproduct will go unused. [....] This is sustainability in its truest and finest form" [1].

Technology always has a way of underperforming the predictions of its advocates, especially big civil projects, like the international space station or even better: The Big Dig tunnel of Boston, which, as wikipedia summarizes nicely:

"[T]the project was estimated at $2.5 billion in 1985, over $14.6 billion had been spent in federal and state tax dollars as of 2006. The project has been replete with delays, arrests, escalating costs, leaks, poor execution and use of substandard materials. The Massachusetts Attorney General is demanding contractors refund taxpayers $108 million for 'shoddy work'" [4].
Somehow, I'm guessing the energy output and emissions will not live up to expectations. Maybe the Florida Attorney General should get together with the Massachusetts Attorney General over a beer for an early planning session. Clearly that would be an efficient investment of state tax monies.


[1] "Florida county plans to vaporize landfill trash" USA Today (Accessed September 10, 2006)

[2] "Garbage -- Hazarous Waste" (Accessed September 10, 2006)

[3] "Solid Waste Recycling Costs" Reason Foundation: Policy Study #19 (Accessed September 11, 2006)

[4]"Big Dig" Wikipedia (Accessed September 10, 2006)


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Handicap Parking, Ethics, and Risk Assessment

[Audio of this essay (12mb .mp3)] Recently I’ve been contemplating my sins, and one of the last, great civil sins that a common citizen can apparently commit is -- gasp! -- parking in a handicap slot. And, yes, I’ve been doing a bit of that lately. Keep in mind I’m a perfectly healthy, Caucasian middle-class protestant, so at first glance my sin seems especially egregious. But I'm going to eventually argue that, upon deeper consideration, what I'm doing is actually morally permissible. However, there are some nuances to my civil iniquity that need be noted up front.


First, I’m not a person who makes ethical decisions out of principle, but the body civic does not expect this of me anyway. For instance, while the speed limit is clearly posted on large, commonly occurring black-and-white signs, I think nothing of driving a mile or two over the speed limit. And neither do the cops. This is why one can safely push the envelope to up around 10% over the posted speed limit and have a reasonable expectation of being ignored by the radar-enhanced, speed-detecting omnipotence of police officers. Imagine getting a ticket for driving 56mph in a 55mph zone. I’m sure it’s happened, but if it happened too often, then police/community relations would deteriorate. And a basic public trust is what makes our police organizations workable institutions. In sum, I make ethical decisions based on risk assessment.

Second, I don’t park in handicapped slots for an arbitrary length of time, as I might otherwise for any common parking slot. So I’m not an evil, selfish cad -- or at least not a full-blown evil, selfish cad who considers not the plight of the handicapped. The worst version of this is when a person makes fake placards and hangs them on their mirror. But there's a stepped-down version of this: I once knew a guy who bought a car from a handicap person, and found a handicap placard under the seat with ten months left on it. He seemed to think this was very convenient fortune on his part, and his parking actions bore such thinking out. He didn’t seem all that evil in any other way. (Perhaps I should be glad he’s well fed and otherwise occupied in a very stable, high-provisioned society.) In sum, at least I am not a cad about my civil iniquity (if an iniquity my parking actions be.)

As a matter of practice, I only park in a handicap slot for a matter of seconds, generally to unload something which is far too heavy to carry for any distance, or to quickly dart in and recover something I forgot in the office, or to let off a passenger off/on during a rainy day, or [ your favorite civil-sin trump card here].

Is this practice of mine morally repugnant?

On a good day, the voice of conscience could argue as follows:

Any usage of a handicap parking slot by a healthy person is a violation of a reasonable law. And a violation of a reasonable law is an ethically egregious action. You, Oh Brint, have confessed such usage, so your actions are indeed egregious!
It was for just this painful moment of conscientiousness , I earlier mentioned my views of (not) driving the speed limit so that I might consider an analogous type argument of the same form:

Any excess speeding in face of no duress is a violation of a reasonable law. And a violation of a reasonable law is an ethically egregious action. You, Oh Brint, have confessed such excess, so your actions are indeed egregious!

Here, however, I note a difference in the first premiss of the speeding argument. I do not consider speeding laws reasonable, or at least as reasonable as I do handicap parking laws. Speeding laws are written for the average driver, driving the average car, under typical circumstances. Uh, when does *that* ever happen? Moreover, many speed limits were set long before high performance tires and computer control systems came into common manufacture -- thus why I find speeding laws much less convincing than I do laws about handicap parking. So perhaps I have all the less moral justification for violating the handicap parking slots! Alas, the moral high-grounders among you can only wish. Let me explain.

As I’ve already confessed to my propensity for seeing ethics as risk assessment, what I usually do is question the second premiss of both the above arguments. To wit, is it really so obvious that “a violation of a reasonable law is an ethically egregious action”? I don't think so. In assessing risks, there are priorities to consider. One is losing a lot, but with low odds of that happening. Another is losing very little, but with high odds of that happening. The following section develops how I've come to view the handicap parking in the face of these two priorities.


First, under what circumstances are there great losses with high odds accruing to some party (me, a handicap person, or greater society) when I pull into a handicap slot for a few moments? Clearly, parking in a handicap slot located in front of, say, a prosthetic clinic would be just such a circumstance. Since prosthetic clinics are known to be frequented by people who have trouble getting around, there would be a great loss to subtract even one handicap slot from the available pool. All parties would feel such loss: (a) No doubt, and rightly so, workers and users of the prosthetic clinic would be "greatly pissed off", to use the colloquial phase, were they observe me sauntering happily away from my illegally parked vehicle. Perhaps they would key my car, or contact the police, or call their mullet-topped, 350lb disgruntled lover to teach me a personal lesson in civic manners. (b) Also, I would very likely suffer (as the previous sentence intimates. ) (c) Finally, society suffers since the time, effort, and dignity of its legislative efforts to protect its weakest citizens are being subverted. In sum, with high loss and high odds of loss, I would never be so immoral as to park in front of a prosthetic clinic (or something closely analogous to it, such as a hospital, an emergency zone, etc.)

Second, under what circumstances is there minimal loss with low odds accruing to some party when I pull into a handicap slot for a few moments? After the fall of Lucent (and the loss of a 1000 bucks in my one and only foray into the stock market), one of their very large assembly factories was eventually closed just down the road from me; it stands as a personal and continual reminder to my abject failure as a '90's venture capitalist. One hot day, to my surprise, I see a singular pickup truck parked in its great-plains, prairie sized (ex-)corporate lot. Behold -- the mowing guy. And he's parked in one of the handicap zones, using the concrete-chair ramp to move his mowing rig onto the horizon-to-horizon greens. I'd never seen anyone parked at the unused Lucent plant. I've never since seen anyone parked at the unused Lucent plant. Was I morally incensed at what I observed? Did I reach for my cell-phone to perform righteous citizen crime reporting? Did I even take time to slow and yell, "Hey, loser, get your parked @$$ out of the handicap slot!"? No, for the odds were zilch of a handicap person obtaining some loss from this guy, one who was prudently using a ramp by-way to get his multi-day mowing job started. In sum, with low loss and low odds of loss, there are times it is morally permissible to park in the handicap slots.

At this point, I could claim that my thesis has been duly defended -- namely, that it is not always morally repugnant to park in handicap slots. Only the most anal retentive, jesuitical moralist would chastise the Lucent mowing man for his efficient use of space and labor at the start of that hot August, Oklahoma mowing venture.

Yet I am well aware that most people are not nit-picking moralist, and would really like to know what the moral status is in the remaining two circumstances: Where the possible loss is low, but the odds of that loss are very high; and, where the possible loss is high, but the odds of loss are very low.


I could give some long-winded, extended analysis. (Maybe I've been doing this already.) But I think an account concerning my wife's behavior will suffice to make the point on this matter. She's a civil sinner too; it turns out she parks in the handicap slot by our daycare so as to run in and collect our child. For the past seven years, we've both run three kids thru the same daycare, and so both she and I are intimately familiar with the parking patterns there -- i.e. at seven years times fifty weeks times five days times twice a day, we make such appearances. (I'll leave the nit-pickers among you to figure the precise number.) At virtually no time, in the last seven years has she ever seen a handicap-tagged auto appear in the handicap slots.

I used the word "virtually", because there was one, singular time where a person who indeed had a handicap tag happened to be parked next to her, in the other handicap slot. Naturally, my wife was chagrined by this social faux pas. She uttered a quiet sorry, no doubt with a genuine sheepish look on her face. She reported that the driver of the handicap-tagged vehicle gave her but a scowl in response -- as he sat in his vehicle, mind you, waiting for his non-handicap passenger to recover a child. (Was he really using that slot in the way it's intended? Never mind.) Other than that one time, neither my wife nor I have ever observed any other handicap-tagged vehicles in those slots. Nor has she modified her behavior.

Nor should she. Why is this? Since she has overwhelming experience on how the slots are used, and since she has intimate familiarity with the schedule, patrons, and parking patterns of the daycare, she is in a position to judge what is morally appropriate for the parking situation there. Again, I make no claim that the law needs changing -- it doesn't; or that it does not apply to her -- it does. But the legal standards are to be considered far less important than the ongoing processes in which one is personally and physically involved. What is important is the actual physical, geographical, and event-patterned state my wife finds herself in. These factors all determine her range of actions

Again, the legal view is not the morally singular point by which to apply the ethical standard. No doubt the authorities, when proposing and enforcing laws would not desire this attitude in the citizenry, but community legal standards must always be carefully differentiated from individual ethical standards; after all, laws are made in the interest of citizens; not citizens for laws.


In conclusion, let me summarize what I take to be the ethical position of the non-handicap person, so I'm not subsequently misunderstood:

First, is it always morally permissible to park in handicap slots? No. Is it always morally wrong to park in handicap slots? No. Sometimes it is morally permissible, and sometimes it is not.

Second, how does one determine which "sometimes" are which? It is done so in this manner: (a) when one is overwhelmingly familiar with the area, parking patterns, and likely constituency of the parking arena; moreover, (b) when the time frame is so short, and availability of additional slots so obviously accessible, that only social embarrassment and not any actual functional loss of parking availability is noted; then, and even when a handicap person subsequently occupies adjoining slots and catches the "civil sinner" in the act, it is indeed morally permissible for a non-handicapped person to have parked there.

Finally, note that my view demands there be at least two, unoccupied handicap slots open and available for any morally permissible planned parking venture by a non-handicapped person who acts to use one of them.


Addendum: This article is for academic consideration only, and does not
constitute moral advice or admission of any actual violation of the law by
myself or anyone mentioned in the preceding essay